By Ignacio Ortega
Moscow, Sep 13 (efe-epa).- Russians went to the polls on Sunday in several elections crucial for the governing party in the Kremlin, United Russia, which has been battered in the opinion polls, but the balloting was marred by the absence of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned by unknown parties while campaigning in Siberia.
“If United Russia loses the majority (in the regional parliaments), the power of those criminals will evaporate immediately. We have a plan to defeat them,” said Navalny in a video recorded in Novosibirsk, the Siberian capital, just days before he fell into a coma after evidently receiving a dose of a Soviet-era nerve agent administered by unknown attackers.
Suspicions are widespread, needless to say, in both Russia and the West that he was poisoned either by the Kremlin itself or by local corrupt officials he had been working to expose.
More than 40 million Russians were called to the polls in half of the country’s regions for regional and municipal parliamentary elections, where United Russia has not stopped losing support in recent years amid complaints of corruption and abuse of power.
The vote has been deemed a big test for the ability of assorted parties to draw voters in the 2021 legislative elections, and thus the loss of regional bastions in the European portion of Russia and Siberia would be a sharp reversal for Russian President Vladimir Putin amid his plans to run for reelection in 2024 after the recent constitutional referendum allowing him to do so.
Navalny was poisoned on Aug. 20 as he was getting ready to leave Tomsk, a key university city in Siberia, where he had traveled to expose corruption among top local officials and to lend his support to opposition candidates.
“I met with Navalny on the day before he was poisoned. He was in the city for three days preparing for the elections. I left him in the hotel and I didn’t see him again,” Ksenia Fadeyeva, an opposition candidate in Tomsk, told EFE.
Fadeyeva said she believes the authorities decided to eliminate the opposition leader because the Kremlin’s popularity ratings are continuing to fall, the public doesn’t support United Russia any longer, the economic situation is worsening and unsustainable and also because of the precedent set by massive anti-government protests in the neighboring country of Belarus.
“They’re afraid that if there can be a revolution in Belarus, an apparently stable system, tomorrow the same thing could happen in Russia,” she said.
With all that has happened, she admitted that she still has not gotten over the “shock” of the news about Navalny’s poisoning, although the fact that he was transferred to a clinic in Germany for urgent medical care reassured her, to some extent.
“They had attacked him several times, but they had never tried to kill him,” she said.
Fadeyeva also said that Navalny’s dire health situation had not negatively impacted the opposition’s election campaign, since the structure launched by the opposition leader is now operating on its own.
She was referring to what has become known as “intelligent voting,” that is, the move by opposition supporters to back the candidate who has the best chance to defeat the United Russia candidate, regardless of whether that opposition figure is liberal, communist, nationalist or independent.
“Intelligent voting was invented because the Kremlin is not allowing us to register as political parties. In Putin’s Russia, it’s impossible to compete on an equal level,” she said.
A year ago in the municipal elections in Moscow, beset by the biggest government protests in years, intelligent voting appeared to work well, giving the opposition half the seats in the local assembly.
Besides Tomsk, Navalny was confident that the opposition would achieve good results in Novosibirsk, where the opposition had built a coalition to unseat the Kremlin-backed mayor and get back a majority in the regional assembly.
“Our minimum objective is to manage to create a parliamentary grouping and to fight against corruption,” said Daniel Markelov, an independent candidate, who met with Navalny in mid-August.
He said that the Kremlin dreads intelligent voting, since it has become a very popular phenomenon in cities with more than 200,000 residents.
The elections are crucial for United Russia, which is trying to counteract popular dismay over the unstoppable fall in their buying power, the management of the coronavirus on the local level and growing unemployment.